Mobs set Egypt churches on fire, 12 killed

  • Sun May 8th 2011

Muslim mobs set two churches on fire overnight in Cairo during sectarian clashes that left 12 dead and more than 200 injured. The deepening religious violence in military-ruled Egypt added news tensions to an already chaotic and lawless transition to democracy.

Military authorities arrested 190 people, immediately sending them to military prosecutions and threatening the maximum penalty against anyone attacking houses of worship. It was the military's toughest response yet to a series of violent clashes between the two religious groups and signifies swift justice.

Mobs of ultraconservative Muslims attacked the St. Menas church in the Cairo slum of Imbaba late Saturday following rumors that a Christian woman married to a Muslim man had been abducted. Local residents said a separate mob of youths armed with knives and machetes attacked the Virgin Mary church several blocks away with firebombs.

"People were scared to come near them," said local resident Adel Mohammed, 29, who lives near the Virgin Mary Church. "They looked scary. They threw their firebombs at the church and set parts of it ablaze."

During Egypt's 18-day uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak several months ago, there was a rare spirit of brotherhood between Muslims and Christians. Each group protected the other during prayer sessions in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution.

But in the months that followed the toppling of Mubarak on Feb. 11, there has been a sharp rise in sectarian tensions, fueled in part by newly active ultraconservative Muslim movement, known as the Salafis.

Egypt's state news agency said of those killed, at least six Muslims and at least three Christians were among those killed. The body of one Christian was found inside the St. Menas church, the agency said. The Health Ministry said 12 had died and more than 230 were injured, at least 11 of them critically.

The clashes were set off Saturday around sundown when word spread around the low-income neighborhood of Imbaba that a Christian woman who married a Muslim was abducted and is being kept in the church against her will.

The report, which was never confirmed by local religious figures, sent a large mob of Muslims toward the St. Menas church. Christians created a human barricade around the church and clashes erupted. Gunfire sounded across the neighborhood, and witnesses said people on rooftops nearby were firing into the crowd.

A New Year's Eve suicide bombing outside a Coptic church in the port city of Alexandria killed 21 people, setting off days of protests. Egypt made some arrests but never charged anyone with the attack.


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